(2021) Documentary (Abramorama) Lars Ulrich, Ice-T, Robert DeLeo, Jerry Cantrell, Dexter Holland, Duff McKagan, John Kasich, Drew Pinsky, Tom Morello, Taylor Momsen, Rob Zombie, Dorothy Martin, Gavin Rossdale, Ed Kowalcyk, Kevin “Noodles” Wasserman, Matt Pinfield, Machine Gun Kelly, Lzzy Hale, Jason Flom, Seyth Boardman, Allison Hagendorf. Directed by Jonathan McHugh
Heavy metal has always gotten, if you’ll excuse the expression, a bad rap among musical genres. Often the music is dismissed as self-indulgent guitar noodling with satanic lyrics, its fans as Beavis and Butthead clones. That’s neither accurate nor fair.
Metal fans have always been amongst music’s most passionate. There is a kind of tribalism that goes on with metal fans, from the tattoos of lyrics and logos to the tour t-shirts and festival followers. While there might be rivalries with different bands (Metallica and Megadeth come to mind right away), there is a camaraderie between metal fans regardless of their favorite band; they’re all in it together and even if your favorite band is Halestorm, you can still rock out to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Korn or Body Count.
This is a documentary that suffers from the desire to do too much. McHugh starts as a way for fans to discuss what about the music appeals to them, why they love the bands they do and some of this is the most interesting material in the film, like the midwestern Mom whose kids can’t stand the music she listens to (it’s too loud) and takes one weekend off a year to attend a music festival to blow off steam and re-connect with friends and fellow metalheads.
But McHugh goes off in several other directions without any sort of plan or organization, going from the communal nature of the fans to the fine art of crowd surfing, to the casualties of the rock and roll lifestyle, to the lack of mainstream appeal of the music. The film leads off with Gene Simmons’ quote that Rock and Roll is Dead and rap has taken its place. That may well be statistically accurate, but it fails to take into account the cyclical nature of music which Simmons himself should have an understanding of since he and his band (KISS) have seen metal fall out of favor, come back in the late 80s/early 90s, and then fade away again. Sure, rap and hip hop may well be in the driver’s seat now but so was disco in the 70s; at some point kids will find something else to listen to. They always do.
There’s enough material here for McHugh to have done a miniseries on the subject, but instead he tried to cram it all into an hour and a half. That was probably not a good idea; most of the individual topics he takes off could easily use a movie of their own – the growing acceptance of women and African-Americans in the genre, the soul-grinding nature of touring and the toll it takes on family life, the healing nature of music, the relationship between fans and bands and those I mentioned previously, to name a few.
Much of the footage takes place at large-scale festival shows with tens of thousands in attendance (and often more) which might be painful for those who miss those gatherings which are probably at least another year or two away from happening again as of this writing. The effect of the pandemic on the fans and the musicians is never explored, but something tells me that this was filmed long before that. Some follow-up footage might have been nice. There also seems to be an emphasis on bands of the 80s and afterwards with curiously little mention to the hard rock pioneers of the 60s and 70s like KISS, Van Halen, Iron Butterfly, The Who, the Stones, and only a brief mention of Heart as pioneers for women in rock during that sequence. Context might have been a nice addition as well.
This is a worthy subject for a documentary and there is a definitely uplifting feeling to the film, despite a section on the passing of Chris Cornell and Chester Binnington of Soundgarden and Linkin Park, respectively. I think with a little better editing an maybe a little less scattershot approach, this could have been a lot more kickass than it was.
As a rock critic back in the day, I covered a number of the bands that are portrayed here. I have to say that the metal fans were some of the most inclusive of any I’ve ever dealt with as a rock critic. Although I tended to be more drawn to alternative music personally, I looked forward to metal shows not just because I liked the fans, but also because the women tended to be the sexiest – I was a single guy at the time, after all.
REASONS TO SEE: Gets an “A” for enthusiasm.
REASONS TO AVOID: Doesn’t really organize its subjects well.
FAMILY VALUES: There are drug references and profanity herein.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Halestorm, who is profiled in the film, recorded a cover of The Who’s “Long Live Rock” to promote the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: MUBI, Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/18/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 20% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years
FINAL RATING: 6/10